YANGON, Myanmar - The United Nations has received permission from Myanmar's government to operate nine helicopters to bring relief supplies to victims of Cyclone Nargis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday.
"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP (World Food Program) helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible," Ban told reporters in New York before departing on a mission to Myanmar.
His announcement was not immediately confirmed by Myanmar officials.
"I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of relief workers seeking to enter the country," he said. "I'm confident that emergency relief efforts can be scaled up quickly."
The country began three days of mourning for the 134,000 dead and missing.
Flags at government offices, schools and large hotels in Myanmar were lowered to half-staff. But shops were open as usual and many people in Yangon said they had little idea of what the government-announced mourning entailed.
Some residents frustrated with the junta's response to the disaster called it a symbolic gesture that lacked sincerity.
"If they are sincere, they should welcome help from everyone," said Zin Moe, 32, who sells clothes. "They are not letting in aid quickly enough, and people are angry."
The military-led regime said Monday it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee distribution of foreign relief to cyclone survivors.
But most foreign aid workers still were banned early Tuesday from the storm-devastated area and the United Nations said only a fraction of the survivors had received some form of international assistance.
A senior U.S. diplomat said that Myanmar's military-led government will be responsible if thousands of desperate cyclone survivors die because foreign aid and disaster workers were barred from the country.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel told lawmakers in Washington that the generals running Myanmar cannot manage the distribution of aid needed to help people facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is in Myanmar to persuade its government to allow in more international assistance and pave the way for a visit this week by Ban.
Holmes told reporters Tuesday that Ban will meet with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the head of the ruling junta. Myanmar officials were not immediately available to confirm the meeting plan.
Ban said he's hoping to press the country's military leaders for speedy relief for cyclone victims.
He told reporters before heading to the airport on Tuesday that "this is a critical moment for Myanmar."
Survivors face disease, malnutrition
He said there is a functioning relief program in place but so far it has been able to reach only 25 percent of the people in need. He said he welcomed the government's "recent flexibility" in allowing Asian relief workers under the auspices of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to begin distributing international aid supplies.
The secretary-general is scheduled to arrive in Myanmar on Thursday morning.
He is expected to inspect the areas devastated by the storm as well as talk with Myanmar officials. On Sunday, he is supposed to attend a meeting of aid donors in Yangon.
The cyclone's official death toll stands at about 78,000, with 56,000 more people missing. Conditions in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta remain precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.
A Myanmar doctor returning from the delta said refugees in the bigger towns were receiving some aid and medical care but expressed concern for those in outlying villages.
Villagers were still trickling into the towns because they had received no aid, she said.
"We saw one young girl yesterday. Her lips and her nails were blue. She looked like she was going to die," Tin Sein said on Tuesday. "People who haven't eaten or drunk clean water and also completely exposed to the rains and storm."
"I don't think anyone has a good picture right now of the overall situation," she said. "People give different facts and figures. It's a major problem."
State-owned media reported Tuesday that the head of thejunta met victims in the Irrawaddy delta Monday, saying the regime had "promptly carried out rescue and rehabilitation tasks."
The general said the government has spent more than $45.5 million on relief operations, has met immediate needs such as food, shelter and health care and is moving into the reconstruction phase.
'Long way to go'
Foreign aid agencies and the United Nations were less upbeat. They said only some 500,000 of as many as 2.4 million storm victims have received some form of international assistance.
"I think there is still a long way to go to improve the relief efforts, to speed it up and to make sure that all the people who are in need are reached," said Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs. "There is still a major effort to be mounted on the relief side, which has to go on for some three to six months."
Sean Keogh, a trauma doctor with the group who returned recently from Myanmar, told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday that "no country can really cope with that kind of emergency on their own."
He noted that even the United States had accepted outside help after Hurricane Katrina.
In Singapore, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for redistributing foreign aid.
Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said. ASEAN member Thailand already has sent teams, as have non-ASEAN neighbors India and China.
Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations, claims losses from the disaster exceeded $10 billion. But it may have problems funding a recovery.
World Bank Managing Director Juan Jose Daboub said Tuesday the bank will not give any financial aid or loans because Myanmar has failed to repay its debts for a decade.
Daboub said the World Bank is providing technical support to assess damage in Myanmar and help plan economic reconstruction.
"But the bank cannot legally provide any (financial) resources to Myanmar because it is in arrears with the bank since 1998," he said in Singapore.